Friday, February 27, 2009

The Observer: Issue 5!

It's that time of the month again!

The Observer is out!

This issue's main topic, "Depression in the Orthodox Community" is dedicated to my friend Shimon.

Those of you who remember Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot's groundbreaking article entitled "Dimensions: A Young Man's Story of Torment: Surviving Depression," which was published in Jewish Action in 2001 will be thrilled to see he has followed it up with an interview he has given us at The Observer. The interview includes his thoughts on how depression is perceived by the Jewish community now that it's been 8 years since his original article, how he came to write that piece, and other thoughts and suggestions regarding depression.

As part of our powerhouse lineup on the series, we also have an interview with Dr. David Pelcovitz on depression. This offers a different point of view, because rather than discussing the issue from personal experience, Dr. Pelcovitz answers in his capacity of psychologist.

See the rest of our articles on depression and mental health in the Features section.

And then, of special interest to all the bloggers, we have an interview with our very own Jameel!

Also check out the fact that the women's Purim Chagiga was supposed to be moved, but won't be, in the end, there's going to be a new Masters program here at Stern, and a Wilf student was almost a victim of a crime.

There's a fascinating new television show out called "Dollhouse;" read all about it here.

It's important to care for the homeless, rebuild New Orleans, and swab to join the Gift of Life Registry.

There's plenty more- so check it out!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Introduction to the Oral Law Part 1 (Aish Style)

PDF 151

Rabbi Mordechai Becher of Gateways was recently at Stern and gave a lecture instructing students in how to answer questions regarding the Oral Law. Above please see the sheet he handed out to all of us (complete with my notes) and below, please see my comments elaborating upon the ideas he mentioned.

1. How do we know the Oral Law is there? Why do we need it?

a) The Torah is not the Bible, in that it is not simply the Old Testament portion of the Christian bible. It is far more vast, and far more expansive than that.

b) We know that we have an Oral Law because we have a certain system of translation and interpretation regarding the very words of the Written Law. The Written Law is in Hebrew, and it is written in Torah scrolls without vowels or punctuation. Therefore, when one encounters certain words, such as for example chlv, that means they can either be read as chalav (milk) or cheilev (fat). Our Oral Law elaborates upon these words and gives us the correct punctuation/ interpretation/ reading. This is one of the ways in which we see the Oral Law clearly working in tandem with the Written Law.

c) Have you ever learned to swim from a book? No, you probably did not. You learned how to swim in a hands-on situation, where you were actually in the water, with someone instructing you what to do. Rabbi Becher makes the point that there was actual practical hands-on material that was taught to people via the Oral Law as opposed to being written down because that is simply a better method of transmission.

d) There are certain words used throughout the Written Torah that are not explained/ elaborated upon. These include words like "work, affliction, life, slaughter" and suchlike. What do these words actually mean? One is meant to "afflict oneself" on Yom Kippur. Does it mean we should sit on thumbtacks while listening to opera music? What's the legal definition of affliction? These words are explained and elaborated upon in the Oral Law.

e) Thus it follows that since Written Law is incomprehensible in and of itself (after all, what does "work" or "affliction" mean) it would make sense the author of the work would also provide the explanations. That is the Oral Law.

f) Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch states in his Commentary on Exodus 21:2 that the Oral Law is like the actual lecture given by a professor or teacher while the Written Law is like lecture notes. If you simply read the lecture notes, you are not necessarily going to understand the material in the way you would if you attended the lecture. For example, when we write Chemistry notations we use shorthand. Au stands for gold, and Na for yet another substance. Now, if an English major comes over and tries to read your notes, which say things to the equivalent of Au, NaCl and so forth, she won't understand the material until you explain the code.

2. Why not write it all down? What is the advantage of an Oral Law?

a) Do physicians learn how to become doctors due to their years of medical school, or because of on-the-job experience, where the material is transmitted from actual doctors making diagnoses and suchlike? Generally, the on-the-job experience is more valuable. Similarly, the Oral Law as a method of oral transmission is simply the form better suited to transmitting this information.

b) The Written Torah is like a compressed zip file while the Oral Law unzips it. Therefore, the Written Law is very portable and compact, and everything can be derived from it; that's easier than writing down all the Oral Law and carrying that around, too.

c) The written word is easily stolen, distorted or changed (just look to the other religions that base themselves on the Torah.) If one has an Oral Law, it is harder to steal, change or adapt.

d) An Oral Law, due to the fact that it is oral as opposed to written, has to be studied because it only exists in our hearts and minds. If we do not study it, it will be forgotten. Therefore, this creates an incredible study ethic in the Jewish people as a whole.

e) The fact that this is an Oral tradition means that one cannot simply open up a book and study for oneself, but must come into contact with the actual symbols of the transmission of the law; there is a need for personal contact with the transmitters of tradition.

f) The Oral Law means that one cannot simply open up the Written Law, look at it for 10 minutes, and then assume that one understands it completely. The Oral Law requires effort; it is difficult to master, and therefore we are anti-superficiality and superficial understandings of the text. We must actually exert ourselves in order to reach the truth. "Thou shalt think."

g) Feedback mechanism- When one learns the Oral Law, this allows for question/ answer discussions where questions are valued, as opposed to merely memorizing a rulebook.

h) There was a Tai Chi master who was swaying, his arms moving and slapping lightly against his sides. Why? Because if someone were to push him, he would sway and turn, instead of standing strong against the push, which would then topple him. The idea is to "change enough to stay the same." When it comes to the flexiblity of halakha in the Oral Law, we change enough to stay the same. (For example, the law is that we cannot kindle fire, and we adapt that to our times by not using electricity on Shabbat- that is changing enough to stay the same.)

3. Maybe the message was distorted? What about Broken Telephone?

a) If there were simply one person transmitting the message, perhaps you would have a point. However, imagine this scenario. You have ten groups, and the teacher whispers in a student's ear (of each of the ten groups) the words "ABCD." Now, the first boy has only ever heard the word "ADHD" so assumes that is what was said. The second has parents who are into rock so he hears "AC/DC." The third is Israeli and hears "AB3D." But if all the separate groups compare their chains, 6 out of 10 groups will have heard A for the first letter, 8 out of 10 B, and so forth, so they will be able to piece back what the original message was. So too, we have thousands of chains for our tradition- every individual, family and community is a testament to that- so it is far more likely we have it right than wrong.

b) Message ingrained in receiver since cradle (we grow up in Jewish houses, hear Torah since the time we are born)

c) Logical system can be reconstructed using its rules- the Oral Law could be reconstructed if necessary off of the Written Torah

d) If it's important/ integral to you, you won't mishear. If someone calls you up and gives you a very important stock tip, you won't mishear the stock name. If the Torah is important to you, you won't lose the message.

e) There are plenty of written references to the Oral Law, whether it be the Torah, Prophets and Writings or the private notes students took at lectures (even though there was no official edition, students were allowed to take notes on the material taught when it comes to the Oral Law.) In Ezekiel, for instance, the prophet references the laws of mourning. Also, mikvas were discovered on Masada that were built 300 years before the Mishna was written down and were constructed almost exactly the same way as our modern-day mikva would be.

f) Review, mneumonic devices and rhymes and tunes were all created to allow for memorization and correct transmission.

g) Inertia of entire society and state. Law enforcement- Can you imagine a police officer stopping you and informing you that it is Shabbat so you shouldn't be smoking that cigarette? These laws were lived, not just laws of the book, so everyone knew them.

4. Is there any evidence of the antiquity and observance of the Oral Law?

a) Uniform acceptance of basic principles- even the Karaites and Sadducees. For example, in the Written Law we read that our animals have to be slaughtered a certain way. What way? Well, that explanation is offered by the Oral Law. Even the Karaites and Sadducees agreed regarding that interpretation of ritual slaughter.

b) Artifacts predating redaction of Mishna (For example, you can see Tefillin that predate the Mishna by 200 years in the Israel museum)

c) Dead Sea scrolls

d) Septuagint's Greek translations

e) Prophets accept Oral Law as given

f) Consistency and universality of complex calendar among all communities, even without communications

g) Genetic distinction of Cohanim, descendants of Aaron, Cohen Modal Haplotype. Genetic mutation shows Kohanim have a common ancestor.

h) Cholent, hamin, orisa, skhina- protest against Karaite rejection of Oral Law- do not light a fire but you can have a fire burning. Original protest food! Every Jewish community has its own form of cholent, whether it be potatoes and beans, cracked wheat and garlic and rice and so forth. All these stews were created for the same purpose- to demonstrate you don't believe in the Karaite tradition but rather in the Oral tradition that one is permitted to have hot food on Shabbat day. (You see this in the Baal Ha'Meor to the 3rd chapter of Shabbas in his commentary to the Rif.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hungry To Be Heard Eating Disorders Event

For all those of you who noticed that we covered the "Hungry To Be Heard" documentary on eating disorders and were interested in seeing the film...

Tomorrow, February 24, Active Minds is hosting an event entitled "Celebrating the Survivors: Eating Disorders Explained." It is open to the public.

It will be at 9:00 PM at Furst 501. (Furst is located on the Wilf Campus.)

"Hungry To Be Heard" will be screened at the event, and we will also hear from Aliza Stareshefsky, who is featured in the documentary. Aliza will also be reading a poem by a male YU student who suffered from bulimia and who is also featured in the documentary. He will be present at the event, but will probably not speak.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Drinking on Purim

What do you think of this quote in context of the ideas regarding drinking on Purim? (Do you think it supports the idea/ opposes it?)


“Such is my fate! Do you know, sir, do you know, I have sold her very stockings for drink? Not her shoes—that would be more or less in the order of things, but her stockings, her stockings I have sold for drink! Her mohair shawl I sold for drink, a present to her long ago, her own property, not mine; and we live in a cold room and she caught cold this winter and has begun coughing and spitting blood too. We have three little children and Katerina Ivanovna is at work from morning till night; she is scrubbing and cleaning and washing the children, for she’s been used to cleanliness from a child. But her chest is weak and she has a tendency to consumption and I feel it! Do you suppose I don’t feel it? And the more I drink the more I feel it. That’s why I drink too. I try to find sympathy and feeling in drink.… I drink so that I may suffer twice as much!” And as though in despair he laid his head down on the table.

~Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Burning Fire and a River of Tears: One Day in My Shoes

This is an extremely powerful essay that appears in the newest edition of Kol Hamevaser: The Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body. The name of the issue is "Kedoshim Tihyu," and it just came out today.


A Burning Fire and a River of Tears: One Day in My Shoes

I wake up to a buzzing alarm clock signaling another day and head out to daven. I concentrate as hard as I can and ask Hashem for help to face another day. I am the typical YU student. I go to morning seder, lunch, shiur, and then my secular classes. I am still the typical YU student. I sit down for supper, go to night seder and then to Maariv. Am I really the typical YU student? I spend my nights studying for the next day of classes; I work hard for my grades, but still find some time to spend with my friends. But as I get ready to put my head down for the night, exhausted from a trying day, I know that I am not the typical Yu student; Hashem has given me the challenge of challenges, a challenge that leaves me muffling my cries on a tear stained pillow as I slowly fall asleep.

Each of us has a challenge in the world, a roadblock on the highway of life that challenges us to become the best we can be. We are given these tests to help shape our character, to become masters of our desires, whatever they are. Whether the test is keeping Shabbat or learning afternoon seder between classes, we are all given a test in life. My own challenge keeps me up at night, preoccupies my thoughts during the day, and leaves me feeling like I am walking down a somber road in a lonely world. I am a religious Jew, living in the religious world, faced with the challenge of being a homosexual.

The Torah tells us that the act of homosexuality is an abomination, and under no circumstances is one to perform this act, even when faced with death as the only alternative. The act of homosexuality is likened to that of bestiality and adultery and is looked upon in the most severe of manners. There is little reference otherwise to homosexuality in the Torah and Talmud, although at the end of Masekhet Kiddushin, we are told that two men are prohibited from sleeping under the same blanket for fear of possible homosexual relations taking place. The Gemara there, however, states that this ruling no longer applies as such acts were practically unheard-of during that era. Little other information is available from these early sources on the topic, although some stories are related in the Gemara and several biblical Midrashim.

Before homosexuality started to become an acceptable alternative lifestyle, as is so visibly flaunted today, the idea of permitting homosexuality in Judaism was unheard of. Within the last several years however, arguments have started to be discussed to try and find loopholes for its permissibility. Homosexuality is labeled by the Torah as an abomination and there are no infallible arguments against it. ‘How can Hashem expect us to live our lives as celibates? As two consenting adults we should be allowed to live our lives the way we want in order to find true happiness,” is often an argument put forth to the Jewish community. “Love,’ ‘fulfillment,’ ‘exploitative,’ ‘meaningful’- the list itself sounds like a lexicon of emotionally charged terms drawn at random from the disparate sources of both Christian and psychologically-oriented agnostic circles” [1] wrote YU’s Chancellor and Rosh Ha-Yeshivah, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm in the 1970s. He went in depth to prove that these arguments would permit any sexual liaisons in today’s society, removing from it all sexual morality.

As a religious Jew I have always put Torah values at the center of my beliefs. Never would I dream of trying to say that homosexuality is permissible, I know that there is something intrinsically wrong with such an act. That is not to say that it is not a challenge for me. Attraction, whether to a man or a woman, is not always something that one can control. The fact that I have certain desires— which I would purge from my life in a second if I had the ability—is something that I cannot change. They leave me with feelings of solitude, despair, depression and alas, excitement.

Am I an abomination? Does Hashem look at me with disgust and loathing, as I feel so many people would should my struggle be known, as so many people do look at ‘open’ religious Jewish homosexuals today? When one looks closely, the verse in Vayikra labels the homosexual act as an abomination, but only the act. The perpetrators are people, people who are challenged who don’t know how to control their desires- desires that so many of them pray they never had. Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks explains so simply that the Torah “…does not condemn homosexual disposition, because the Torah does not speak about what we are, but what we do.”[2]

However, within the Orthodox Jewish context, few people recognize this. While many today have corrupted general society, leaving it with the notion that once someone is gay, he/she will eventually “come out” and live an “alternative lifestyle,” this is impossible for an Orthodox Jew to accept. As such, I have hidden throughout my lifetime— today I do and in high school I did. I hid in fear that I would be ostracized and excommunicated from the Jewish community. I stood alone as a frightened fifteen-year-old boy, not trying to discretely act on my desires, yet unable to call out and ask for help to rid myself of them. I stood frightened and didn’t know where to turn. I always wanted to find a wife and raise a family as an Orthodox man. I did not know how I would ever be able to do that, but I knew, and still know, that that is the life I am destined to live. I knew that one day I would need to tell someone about my feelings, step out from my hidden world of shadows, and ask for help.

It took me five years to gain the courage to reach that petrifying moment. After many months of praying and introspecting, I eventually reached the point not where I wanted to tell someone, but when I was prepared to tell someone. That moment had been the most horrifying and dreaded thought in my mind for so many years. I had prepared for the worst possible outcome, no doubt because of Hollywood’s portrayal of the heroic homosexual being shunned by once-loving family. I readied myself to be thrown away by a towering figure pointing out in the distance with anger and furry on his face. I prepared myself to watch my life disintegrate before my eyes, collapsing like a building whose structure finally gave out after years of pressure, a house of cards falling from the force of a gust of wind. But through all this I never faltered in my determination to live a life committed to Judaism. I told myself that it didn’t matter what happened in my life, and how anyone reacted; I was raised a frum Jew, which is my true life and my real identity, and no matter what anyone ever said or did to me nothing could weaken who I was.

I wasn’t sure how my rebbe from yeshivah in Israel would react. I expected to be sent home from the yeshiva in shame, looked upon like I was some sexual deviant. I told myself in my heart that no matter how anyone reacted, no matter what, even if I was told to leave my yeshiva and thrown from my house, that I was never going to act upon my desires nor was I ever to turn from G-d. I thank Hashem every day for the strengths he has given me. I thank him for the rebbe he sent me, who, instead of rejecting me, stood by my side helping me though the most awful time of my life. I thank him for the stamina he gave me to fight a depression that nearly led me to commit suicide.

My path is unclear and even though I still stand alone, I stand armed with the will to live another day and fight to keep my beliefs alive. No matter the support I get, I stand on trial every day of my life. I do not know where my future will lead. I do not know what I must do or how I can change my feelings. I live with a sense of frustration knowing the goal I want to reach, but without the tools to arrive there. What must I do to be able to marry a woman? What must I share with my future partner? How can I even bring myself to tell her this hidden secret? I do not know if it is fair to ask someone to live such a life with me or whether I will really be able to truly be happy in such a relationship. I know I want to one day make marriage to a woman work. I know I want to love her and have her love me back. I know I want to watch her walk down to the huppah in the most beautiful wedding dress, with tears of happiness and joy in her eyes, as I know there will be in mine. I know that I want to stand with her, supporting her through the hard times that she will go through, and be there for her always. I see this vision in my future, but I have so many questions that have no answers.

I know that I have a goal that I hold onto everyday. But I live trying to cope with an everlasting sense of guilt. I know that this is not my fault and that this is the way my life was divinely ordained to progress. I have read through so many different experimental ideas as to the root of homosexual attractions. But to me that is all they are, ideas, possibilities that I do not think will really help me in ridding me of my challenge. I do not think that I will ever be able to fully rid myself of my feelings, even when I am to marry and raise a family. Such knowledge is endlessly frustrating. I know where my path will lead, but I do not know how to get there. I see hope at the end of the road, but the path to it is covered by a screen of smoke and fog.

And I still live in fear. I have told a handful of people about my challenge. The results have sometimes been incredibly painful. I have had to pull away from people I have once called friends because of pain and embarrassment. I have severed relationships with close friends because of their lack of understanding and because of the hurt and confusion I have caused them. I watch my friends begin to date, and begin to marry and question what my future holds. Will I find someone to share my life with? Will I ever really be completely happy with my decision? Am I destined to live a life alone? I want to tell my friends, to cry out to them, but I know I cannot. I know that the path that has been laid before me is one of solitude.

Rabbi Dr. Lamm once wrote that “Judaism allows for no compromise in its abhorrence of sodomy, but encourages both compassion and efforts at rehabilitation.”[3] I have told you my story and have given you a glimpse at my challenge. I do not ask you to cry with me nor accept me; I only ask you to realize that I am out there. Realize that not everyone who is challenged with homosexuality is parading and crying for equal rights. I beg you to realize this—that I, too, am a frum Jew, trying to live a frum life like everyone else. I stand with you in the elevators of Belfer, Furst, Muss, Morg and Rubin. I eat lunch at your table, sit with you in class; you call me a friend. And I am not one person; I am the courageous voice that has spoken for a group that lives isolated and in hiding.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot tells us to never judge a man before you have walked in his shoes. I have let you see a peek of the trial I will face for the rest of my life, and ask that you do not judge me; I ask you to understand me. There is a fire within me, which will always burn within me, urging me to fight and complete my destiny, which I must hide from the world. I stand next to you, even if you will never know my identity and my challenge. Many tears have flown from my heavy eyes and there will be many more. One day in my shoes, a trial that will last a lifetime.


[1] Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, “Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality,” in Jewish Bioethics, ed. Fred Rosner and J. David Bleich (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1979), 209.

[2] Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks’ foreward to Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View (London; Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004), ix.

[3] Lamm, 217.


I saw the episode of "The West Wing" entitled "Noel" tonight. I think this scene is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen on any television show.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

You Are Beautiful

So my friend Stu posted some videos of the acapella group the Shabbatones from the University of Pennsylvania singing "At Yafa," which I had never heard of before. (The videos are amazing, as is the lead singer in that one- J.J. Katz.) So I went to look up the song, which is originally by Idan Yaniv, and I decided it's my favorite song now.

In other words, you are beautiful.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Interlocking Gears

I recall struggling to understand exactly how Jews had the ability to affect one another. How could it be that if a Jew learns somewhere in New York, someone in Australia lights Shabbat candles? The idea never made any sense to me.
And then it occured to me that we are like interlocking gears. The toy gear set pictured above is similar to my favorite toy as a child. I spent hours and hours arranging the gears upon my yellow board, turning one of them in order to watch all the others turn.
The Jewish people are like interlocking gears. Indirectly, when one of our gears turns, the rest are connected, and turn as well.
Of course, this is not limited to the Jewish people. People, on a whole, set off chain reactions, as was recently depicted in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in its taxi-meets-ballerina scene. But I was simply struck by how apt an analogy the interlocking gears toy is.

Slumdog Millionaire

I love Slumdog Millionaire.

I love the protagonist. I love that he's honest. I love that he doesn't accept the Host's false answer, the one that is "written" on the bathroom mirror, and goes with the truth instead.

I love that he's loyal. I love that he comes back to Latika again and again.

I love that as a boy, he doesn't sneak a look when he's handing her her towel after her shower.

I love that even Salim is redeemed. That we have the theme of redemption in this movie.

I love how it's not money that Jamal is after, but rather, a life with Latika, whom he loves, and what's more, a life that is good for Latika. Not one where she is abused and beaten and handled as an object.

I love how when Jamal finally meets Latika, he kisses the scar on her cheek, the scar he inadvertantly caused when he asked her to meet him, as though to ask forgiveness, to apologize, and to tell her it doesn't matter to him, and he still thinks she's the most beautiful woman in the world. I love that it's a tender moment, not a lust-filled one.

I love that he doesn't kiss her on the mouth until she asks him to, that he doesn't take advantage of her, but only wants to help her.

In short, I love the fact that Slumdog Millionaire is a fairytale that upholds all the morals and values that any person could desire.

And I love the fact that all of America is in love with an honest, decent, sweet protagonist, and that the message of the film is that good people can get ahead, too. That it's not all about money. That there are things that matter more.

I hope Slumdog wins best picture. It deserves it for its color, vivacity, brilliance and beauty. In fact, it deserves it because it depicts a world we all desire to live to see, where the good people get their due, where the sinners repent, and where love is not a lustful, possessive exercise, but a demonstration of tenderness.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Lady of Shalott

A story

Deep within, buried in the fabric of the past, there is a little boy crying for his mother. He reaches for her, and she holds him close; he can smell the scent of Tide emanating from her clothes as she crushes him against her chest. But fear rises off her, and alarm emanates from her. He tries to soothe her, calm her down. “Mommy,” he calls, but there is no answer. And he tries desperately to connect with her, and stem the tide of words that are called forth. He wants to stave off the ultimate disappointment, the blows that she will extend with her lips, the razor-tipped, barbed words that she cannot help. But they do not know she cannot help it, and there is nothing he can do to stop it.

And so he watches. And he remembers himself, cuddled close, held against her chest. He breathes deep again, calms himself. He runs his fingers through her hair, russet curls that he twines around his hand. He will keep her safe, he thinks. He will be strong for her. No matter what she says and who turns away from them because of it, he will stand by her. She is his Mother, and he loves her. And even though no one else can know what is wrong, because it is their secret, he has strength enough to be lonely for her, to be everything she needs and wants him to be.

Brilliant, caught within a world bounded by the four walls that close him, he reads to himself, fascinated by the world within the written word. He pores over pictures, figures, plays with toys, humming to himself. He cares for his little sister, watching her sometimes when Mommy must go out and Daddy is away at work. He knows how to be very responsible. Mommy compliments him on his maturity. Daddy just assumes that he will do what he is expected to do in order to make them proud. Daddy is always very tired when he comes home; he doesn’t usually have the strength to make dinner. When Mommy has taken her medicine, she will make it, and smiling, give Daddy a kiss on the cheek before sitting down. Sometimes she will wear a flower in her hair. It is usually a rose. On those days, Daddy smiles.

But more often there are the days when Mommy sits sullen and cold, entranced by a vision she sees just outside the window. He has wondered what it was. Like a Lady of Shalott looking only into her mirror, Mommy looks into the window, her fingers moving as though she, too, knits a secret bespelled web of dazzling colors. But when he looks at her fingers he sees nothing; he only pretends to see in order to protect her. It is there, he is certain, her loom of magic, and the colors that she weaves. Mommy tries to get jobs, and sometimes she does, but she always thinks that after a little while she can stop taking the pills. After all, she feels well, so why does she need them? But then she will get angry again, and the words will come, the black, ugly words that spill out of her mouth and hurt everyone around them. And he will be very silent and still, and later, when it is over, and his sister is safe in bed, he will cry himself to sleep.

He won’t let her see his tears. Mommy shouldn’t know about anything that will upset her; that is his unspoken pact with his father. Daddy works very hard, so he tries to make sure that nothing will upset Daddy either. Sometimes he requests things he simply cannot have. They can’t afford it, you see, with Mommy unable to hold down a stable job. He remembers the time that he asked whether he could go on the trip to New York. It was the class trip and he was excited to go, especially because his friend Tal was going. But Daddy just looked at him with sad eyes and told him that he wouldn’t be able to go. For one thing, they needed someone to watch his little sister when Mommy went to see the doctor and Daddy was at work. And for another, they simply didn’t have enough money.

He’s smart as a whip, he knows. That’s what they say about him, and he reads his own report cards and monitors his own grades. So he knows that Rebbe likes him. Although Rebbe is worried about the fact that he doesn’t come to school with packed lunches and seems very tired all the time. He wishes Rebbe wouldn’t write these things. They bother his father, when his father takes the time to hear them. And his father works so hard. Sometimes, it seems that a little boy has a lot more discernment than the Rebbe does.

But something awful happened today, and it was that something in particular that he is trying not to remember. That is why he has burrowed under the covers, choking his head in the fabric, so that he won’t let out the scream, or the sobs. Mommy said her black words today; it was the day that the black, stick-like words rose up to choke her in her mouth. She couldn’t remember right. So she was talking to Tal’s father and she started saying wild things about him, how he doesn’t raise Tal right, and he doesn’t treat him right, and her little boy is not going to have anything to do with Tal from now on. And Tal’s father looked so surprised; you could have wiped the shock off his face, it hurt him so badly. He was fumbling for words, struggling. He was trying to talk sense.

He wanted to say something that day, wanted to speak up and tell Tal’s father not to try. It was just one of Mommy’s days, the day when the black words choke her and she says things she doesn’t mean. But they don’t know Mommy is sick, because it’s a secret, and he knows he’s not supposed to tell. So he watched Tal’s father and he saw Tal’s face and now he feels sick, so he’s got his head facedown against the pillow, under the comforters, as though that way he can stop everything from happening.

He knows he’s strong. And he knows he can deal with it if Tal leaves him. But he doesn’t want Tal to leave him, because Tal’s actually his friend and he doesn’t have many friends. They’re hard to come by when you’re the son of the Lady of Shalott, the magic lady with her webs and spells and the mysterious curse that has been laid upon her. There’s no escaping that curse; she can’t escape the magic. And sometimes, the magic is good, and she dances, and is sweet, and she smells good, because she’s prayed some perfume on her wrists and behind her neck, and slipped a rose behind her ear. And those are the nights that Daddy’s happy, and he is happy, too.

But sometimes she lashes out, as though she will succeed in hurting whatever it is that is eating her up on the inside, clawing at her in its struggle to get out. He watches it and tears start in his eyes because he knows how hard it is for her. And he feels selfish wanting Tal for himself. But he loves Tal and wants to stay friends with Tal. Except Tal won’t want to play anymore, because he doesn’t know about the curse and the magic and the fact that Mommy’s got a secret that she can’t tell to anyone. And he doesn’t know how late Daddy comes home at night. Because he can’t tell him, even Tal. There are some things you just don’t tell.

Mommy’s got that look again, on her face, that wild look, and he sees that he’d better go to his sister, who is crying. For some reason, sometimes, Mommy can’t tolerate the crying; her head is hurting her and she needs everyone to be very quiet. He knows Mommy doesn’t mean it when she yells, because she is sweet and good and loving, and he knows that she can’t help it. But deep within, in a dark place very hidden, even from himself, he knows that he is scared, and the scary feeling bubbles up. He pushes it down, trying to put it away, but he’s waiting for Daddy to come home and make things better and he’s also wondering what will happen with Tal, and most of all he’s hoping that the curse will go away so that Mommy can be free again, and happy like she was, a long time ago. Sometimes she is happy. He has some pictures where Mommy’s smiling.

He has some pictures where he’s smiling, too.

Oh, Mommy, he calls silently within his head. Can’t I help you? The phone is ringing; he goes to pick it up before the jangling noise bothers her.

Tal is calling. Maybe it will be all right, after all.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Miracle Ride: Bais Yaakov Revealed

I recently read Miracle Ride: A True Story of Illness, Faith, Humor- And Triumph by Tzipi Caton. The book is about an Orthodox Jewish girl's battle with cancer. But oddly, the book was meaningful to me for a completely different reason. This was because of two passages, which I shall reproduce below, that beautifully evidence the stupidity of Bais Yaakov teachers the world over. And what is more disturbing, the impact their stupidity has on the people who must struggle to withstand it.

Excerpt 1

Take the first day of school for example:

There was one teacher who was famous for her "first day of school lesson." She did the same thing every year. She would walk into a classroom, point to one girl, and say, "YOU!!!" That year she made the mistake of pointing at me.

"You," she said, "do you love G-d?"

I looked at her and answered, "No, I don't think so."

I didn't mean that I didn't have ahavas Hashem. I meant that I knew I wasn't up to the level of ahavas Hashem that she was trying to bring out. I knew that she expected me to say that I loved Hashem, and then she was going to disprove it by telling me that a sixteen-year-old couldn't possibly reach perfection in that area. It was what she did every year. I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of making me feel stupid on the first day of class. So I was honest with her.

The teacher was taken aback by my answer. "Let me ask you this then, do you follow His commandments?"


The teacher's face lit up as if she had just invented the light bulb. "If you don't love God, then why do you do His mitzvos?"

"Well, I do your homework," I answered.

The class was roaring. I was kicked out.

Yeah, well, I guess I did have an attitude problem.


Excerpt 2

Right before I walked in, some classmates snatched my cap off my head, saying that my sheitel was stunning and there was no reason to cover it with a cap. They refused to give it back and I was ready to call it quits on my whole day in school.

When Miss Riegler saw some girls trying to hide my cap in a locker, she made them give it back to me. She said that how I felt was not up to me but at least my hat was, and that it wasn't their business to help me get used to my new look.


Pessie called me that night to tell me how glad she was to see me in school and how much she missed sitting with me at lunch. I liked talking to her. I didn't know her for all that long, but from the time we first sat together eating three-day-old bagels at lunch, we got along really well.

She told me that she was really sorry that some girls took off my cap that day. She said that a teacher in the school had asked them to do it. The teacher wanted the girls to tell me how good I looked without the cap and wanted to encourage me to wear the sheitel without it.

When I hung up, I got really angry. I was angry at the people who thought they could tell me how to live and what to do and why. It was as if everyone was an authority on Hodgkin's.



Let me first say that I am extremely impressed Artscroll allowed these excerpts to see the light of day, although I am sure the fact that the teachers are left unnamed was a big part of that. Well, it's either that, or these accusations were completely overlooked, which would not surprise me. Of course, for someone like me, these excerpts would never be overlooked, because I feel them as I read them. She writes about her teachers, and I envision them in my mind. I know these women- not her women, not the particular ones who taught her, but the ones who taught me, who were just the same in their steadfast and earnest stupidity when it comes to educating children. For me, it was these throwaway excerpts that made the book valuable, more even than the entire description of her battle with cancer, not because that is not a worthwhile struggle to document, but because these excerpts impact me personally. As I read them, memories flooded me, my anger swept over me, and I remembered exactly what I had felt like. But more than all of that, the fact that this girl, who bears no relation to me, and went to a completely school, writes these throwaway excerpts, vindicates me. Even now, I look for proof- proof to assemble to show that it is the system, not the student, who is at fault. It is as though I think that even now I shall be called before a principal, made to plead my case, and I want to have the ability to do it well.

Let's discuss the first excerpt. To afford the teacher the benefit of the doubt, I can envision a scenario in which her actions would be appropriate. They would be appropriate were she speaking to a gathering of reprobates and sinners who needed to be shocked out of their complacency and realize that they were less than perfect. But to talk in this way to a group of sixteen-year-old girls, each one overflowing with love of Hashem, and desiring to strive to be closer to Him? To suggest that they are inadequate, to mock them and make fun of them, to claim that their efforts are puny, pathetic, that they lack proper love of God? To put them down? To make them ashamed of having even dared to think that their offering before their Creator was worthwhile? Ah this rings of the bitter guilt they fed me, upon which I was surfeited, all the times in which I was told that I was not equal to the pinky finger of a Gadol, that I was lacking, that I was shameful. It does not need to be said aloud. A teacher need not yell, shout or scream to deliver that message. Look at what this girl writes, this girl who wrote the book.

"I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of making me feel stupid the first day of class."

And so the girl talked back. Well, tell me, what else could she do? Oh, she could have been like me, and attempted to prove to the teacher that everyone's love of God and effort is appreciated in accord with their ability. She could have brought in the Baal Shem Tov stories that I so love and told the teacher that God judges us in accordance with our intent, and knows the ways in which we strive and struggle to grow close to Him. She could have cited various Rabbis, including the Rav, regarding this concept. She could have taught her teacher that everyone's efforts, the way in which we all strive, is precious before God. But perhaps she did not know the sources, or perhaps, more experienced than I had been, she knew it would do no good. And so she did not bother. Instead she mocked the teacher, much as I did, and the teacher, sensing that her authority was questioned, threw her out of class.

The line that to me is the saddest is the one where the author admits her own guilt. "Yeah, well I guess I did have an attitude problem." Did you? Did you really? It is a sign of an attitude problem when you don't want your teacher to make you feel stupid, like a failure, to make you feel that you don't love God enough? Is it a sign of an attitude problem when you would like to be treated like a human being, and instead of being taught only in negatives, through a guilt-laden mussar oriented approach, you are taught in positives? You are taught instead of the fantastic heights to which one can reach love of God, the way in which one can strive from the level one currently inhabits and grow further attached to Him? Could the teacher not instead have asked the class how they loved God? She could have written their ideas and answers on the board, smiling as she did so. She could have praised them for their input and feedback. And then, she could have shown them sources, excerpts, actual texts, and shown them the wonderful ways in which this love could be developed further, taken to new heights. But no. It is much easier to tell a sixteen-year-old child that she doesn't love God enough, isn't good enough, won't ever be good enough. It is much easier to teach guilt and failure.

And then! What fool of a teacher could tell students to rob a girl of the cap she wears over her wig? Did it not occur to the teacher that the girl would feel self-conscious? That perhaps she is permitted to make her own judgements about her appearance and the way she would like to look? And then, for the teacher not to claim responsibility and own up to what she did, but instead allow Tzipi to find out about this through a fellow student- have you ever heard of such an act of cowardice? Who are these teachers whom we give leave to instruct our youth and why do we do it? Why do we educate our youth with the idea that the God who judges them is strict and cruel, desiring the every offering of the Gadol Hador, but throwing away the efforts of the sixteen-year-old? Why the emphasis on shame, guilt, failure, negativity, that which a person is not and potentially will never be? Why the endless comparisons to those who are meant to be far greater than us, better than us, always? It never ends! They never end, the feelings engendered by this, the failures we are taught we are. We exist for one purpose, and that is to support our husbands in Kollel, that most special of tasks a girl can accomplish. That is the sole purpose afforded a girl, beyond her consistent emphasis on tzniut. We are nothing unless it is in relation to someone else, whether it be a man who gives a purpose to our existence, a Gadol or Rabbi who can instruct us and who is worshipped by maidens who pursue him with honeyed devotion, or perhaps teachers to the next generation, raised to tell them what they are not, what they will never be. It is a vicious cycle! And the ugliness taught to one generation of students is parroted back by another; we live in a generation that lacks understanding and prefers rhetoric and rote to comprehension. It's sick; it's sick! It's the sickest, saddest thing I have ever seen, and it never fails to rouse my anger, when I see the way in which we persist in destroying children's souls before they have ever had a chance to breathe.

Do you know I still have to fight all of them now? All those teachers who told me what I wasn't, what I would never be, what I couldn't be, who poured guilt and shame into my ears for hours a day, and were angered by my "attitude," who saw nothing wrong with extolling the virtues of Gedolim and Rabbis and other praiseworthy figures, making them into saints, and comparing us to them in the most negative of never goes away. Am I shadowboxing, fighting with demons, shadows, hidden within myself? Most probably I am. But there is an insidious voice, lingering, which tells me each time I fall, no matter how much I cover myself over in the healing words of the Rav and every other teacher who writes of the ways in which we can grow and become stronger, that I am nothing, and will be nothing, and have ever been nothing, in comparison to the grey-bearded men who live in their cells, pouring over tomes that secretly I still despise- because I know that I will never live up to them. Even now- and it's been five years!- I harbor a hatred toward everyone who told me what I wasn't, and insisted upon my guilt and my sins, though I denied them, and said I did not have them. Well, guess what! Since then, I have sinned, and I am dirty, covered over in stains and mud, and perhaps God despises me! But I hope not, because I think He also sees what I can be, what I could be, and will be gentle with me, and help me to get there. My God isn't angry with me for a supposed lack of love for Him; my God only wishes to help me get there! Would that there was a world that echoed that opinion, where a girl doesn't have to accept their judgement of her, and echo them, believing their words, that she has an attitude problem because she doesn't want to be told of her failures, and what she lacks...instead dreaming of hearing, for once, what she does possess, and the ways in which she can make that serve her, and her God.